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  • Lorin Peters

Shanti Sena Stories: Bil’in

2006 July 21

The village of Bil’in lies 40 minutes northwest of Ramallah. It is famous for its persistent, resilient nonviolent resistance to what the Israelis call their “Separation Barrier”, and what the Palestinians call the “Apartheid Wall”.

Ayman and I clambered out of the servis (shared taxi) in front of the Bil’in mosque. Just up the street was a large, well-built house full of internationals. Several humorous signs testified to the trials of free spirits living together: “Washing your dishes is not a bourgeois conspiracy.” “We do not advocate freedom for garbage.”

The internationals and Israelis surprised me. I had expected 10 or 20, but there were about 50 of us. I heard many languages, including Arabic – virtually a United Nations. And not all the free spirits were young people - at least ten of us had earned our gray or white hairs. The Japanese Buddhist monk recognized my red Christian Peacemaker Teams hat. He said he has been working in Palestine since 1992, and has worked many times with CPT.

The day of rest in Islam is Friday. The weekly demonstration always begins in front of the mosque at the end of Friday mid-day prayers. In Bil’in, it begins with one of the members of the Bil’in Popular (People’s) Committee explaining, to the internationals, in English, the plan for that day’s demonstration.

Everyone lined up in the street, with a giant black shroud, about 75 feet long and 12 feet wide, carried horizontally by people along each long edge. We walked together about one mile west along a village road to the Wall. Actually, out in the countryside, the Wall is a high-tech fence, fortified with sniper posts, mine fields, a four-meter deep ditch, razor wire, surveillance cameras, and electronic sensors. About ten soldiers and two military jeeps, and one TV crew and several photojournalists, waited at the gate. Many more soldiers and jeeps waited in the background.

When everyone had arrived, we observed one minute of silence, as a gesture of mourning and solidarity with the approximately 400 civilians killed in Lebanon in the past nine days. Then the village leaders asked everyone to leave. Normally the demonstration continues for one hour. But this Friday, it was just one minute.

Several people had told me that the shebaab, the juvenile boys, always throw stones at the Israeli soldiers, who are well shielded, as the adults are leaving, and that the soldiers almost always respond with tear gas, and often with rubber bullets. But this Friday, even the shebaab threw no stones. The soldiers fired no tear gas or rubber bullets. I was genuinely grateful for both gifts.

Then the unexpected, and really interesting, part began. When we got back into the village, the Popular Committee asked everyone, including internationals and Israelis, to come upstairs into a large unfinished room for the weekly debriefing. About 40 internationals and 60 Palestinians gathered. After the mid-day heat, soda and water was served. The Popular Committee, including about 12 men, one woman translator, one Israeli, and one ISM (International Solidarity Movement) woman, sat along one wall.

During the meeting I suddenly recognized the face of the Israeli sitting with the Committee. I finally remembered his name – Yonathan Shapiro. Stories about him have been published all over the world. He is a helicopter pilot, and was one of the first Israeli officers to refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories.

The Committee reviewed some of the history of the resistance in Bil’in: demonstrations every Friday for the past year and a half, many creative new examples of street theater, trying to open the eyes of the soldiers to the humanity of the Palestinians, a large presence of internationals and Israelis. Someone asked why Bil’in was still resisting the Wall when other villages have given up. Various answers were given, including the presence of Israelis and internationals, and the wounding of one Israeli after which the Israeli military switched to rubber bullets and tear gas.

Then the questions turned increasingly hostile. “Why do we tolerate internationals who do not dress modestly?” “Are they telling us what to do?” “Are we accepting money from them? How much? What for?” “Who paid to send a member of the Committee to France last spring? Why wasn’t this money used to compensate people who had their land confiscated?”

Several times men came close to blows. Then several other men would get up to intervene, but with different judgments about who to confront. It got quite chaotic. The translators stopped translating for a while. I was surprised that no one individual seemed to be in charge of the meeting. Although one 30-year-old man did allow himself to be led off and to listen to a 60-year-old man, there seemed to be little respect for age. Most of the Committee members were older, most of the challengers much younger.

Finally the ISM woman asked to speak. I had spoken with her several times earlier in the day, partly because we were the only two from the Bay Area. Before the demonstration began, she had wrapped her head in a scarf, in the fashion of the traditional Muslim women. She spoke in English, with regular pauses for translation. She spoke about ISM’s dress code, and about her efforts to challenge other internationals to dress respectfully, one of which I had observed that morning. She spoke about ISM’s commitment to the Palestinian people and culture, about being imperfect, and about asking for forgiveness. She was eloquent. The men listened without interrupting for 15 minutes.

I had referred to her earlier in the day as an ISM leader. She corrected me, “ISM does not have leaders.” She may not be a leader, but she clearly leads.

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